When we have previously spoken about the attributes of God, one of the attributes ascribed to God is justice. Justice has implications of fairness/equity, punishment, consequence, and others as well. The question(s) for the seeker of truth is whether justice is important in your worldview, and if so, what kind of model would it be? If not, then a deeper question is how does one live in our world consistently if justice doesn’t matter to you? And yet a deeper, more troubling question is why bother at all with an idea of justice if God doesn’t exist?
We have established in prior posts the strong evidence for the existence of God, so we are going to move forward and assume God exists. If this is true then justice has to be rooted in God’s nature. Why do I say this? If justice is not rooted in something objective, that is outside of human opinion, then justice is merely a relevant idea for our brief time on Earth for humanity to keep going, and any brand which is socially accepted by any culture is valid, but with no ultimate relevancy. This is similar to how we’ve previously looked at something like morality having to be grounded in something objective as well. And we’ve discussed at length the terrible circumstances a person could be led to if morality is truly subjective and a true right and wrong didn’t exist.
So as we move forward with justice being a part of God’s nature, we want to first examine some biblical passages which give our belief about God’s justice warrant. The following scripture passages (which is not exhaustive by any means) provide that foundation:
Genesis 3:13-19, Genesis 4:8-16, Genesis 18:22-33, Exodus chapters 21-23, Lev 26:14-33, Psalm 9, Psalm 10: 5, 12-18, Psalm 19:7-9, Psalm 33:4-5, Psalm 37, Psalm 45:6-7a, Psalm 50:6, Psalm 51:4, Psalm 58, Psalm 69:22-29, Psalm 76:8-9, Psalm 82, Psalm 89:14, Psalm 94:16-23, Psalm 96:10-13, Psalm 97:2, Psalm 98:9, Psalm 99:4, Psalm 119, John 5:30, Rom 4:25, Rom 8:3-4, Rom 9:13-24, Rom 11:22-24, Heb 2:2, Heb 10:26-30, Heb 12:5-6.
So if God exists, what sort of justice nature would He possess, at least one we humans could understand? Here I am positing that God’s justice is ultimately retributive in nature, at least that is what the majority of the biblical data tends to support. Before we come to that conclusion it would be good to gain an understanding of what retributivism means and how it seems to be more coherent with God’s nature than other theories of justice, such as consequentialism.
The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has argued forcefully that God’s justice is broadly retributive. We know that God hates sin (Psalm 11:5 Psalm 50, Rom 8:7, Heb 10:26-30 are just a few), and we know that God punishes sin throughout the Bible, even if He may forbear it at times. We also know God’s justice at its utmost is eschatological, which means his final judgment is held until the end of the world. This is a big reason why God’s justice is more retributive than consequentialist, because his final judgment is stayed until the last day when ‘he will repay according to each one’s deeds…’ (Rom 2:6)
Craig enlists the help of a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on retributivism to help make his point on God’s retributive nature.(1) Currently there are two theories of justice which are the most popular in the world; retributive justice and consequentialist justice. A retributive theory of justice holds that people should be punished for their crimes, that is, everyone gets their just deserts. A consequentialist theory is based more on punishing to reform, or a form of deterrence, or putting bad people away to keep society safe. A strong retributivist theory holds that people who do wrong need to be punished because they are guilty, not so much that society is better off they are punished. The fact society is better off is a consequence of the punishment, hence the name consequentialism.
If we are to establish a penal substitution aspect in the atonement theory of Christ (see forthcoming “Atonement” section), we need to apprehend what theory of justice best fits the God of the Bible. To do this we need to enlist the help of philosophy of law with respect to the theory of punishment (this is where the Stanford article will come in handy). This is important for manifold reasons, but a popular one for Christians is so one is able to respond to the various critics who ask how justice can be served when God punishes an innocent person for somebody else’s sins? Or more specifically how can justice be served by God punishing Christ for our sin?
We’ll first begin with a stab at a definition of punishment and how a justification of punishment may seem reasonable.
So what counts as punishment? Hardship is popularly held to be a condition for punishment. But we clearly know that hardship alone is not sufficient for punishment. What transforms hardship into punishment? What are the sufficient conditions? There is currently no consensus among academics, however some of the conditions laid out in the retributivist article cited above which are deemed necessary are the following four elements:
-there must be some imposition of cost or hardship on the person being punished.
-the punisher must do so intentionally, not accidentally.
-the hardship or loss must be imposed in response to what is a wrongful act or omission.
-the hardship or loss must be imposed, at least in part, as a way of sending a message of condemnation or censure of what is believed to be a wrongful act or omission. This definition of punishment was made famous by the legal philosopher Joel Feinberg.(2)
*Notice how the last point does not address the censure towards the person, but the act or omission.
A popular objection to point four is that any harsh treatment of Christ by God (not the act or omission), in order to be considered punishment, would not express condemnation or censure of Christ, which is at odds with some penal substitution proponents who believe Christ was truly punished by God. Those proponents of penal substitution who do not believe God punished Christ, but merely afflicted Him with our deserved punishment, would have no problem with this fourth point, so the objection that God punished Christ would fail in their eyes.
So as we can establish some baselines as to what may be considered punishment, there is still much debate on a solid definition because of the nearly limitless ways punishment could be appropriate. With this in mind, what sorts of theories of justice can we use to establish the type of justice nature the God of the Bible has, and understand how that justice was meted out with Christ’s death on the cross? Before we head down this path it is important to remind ourselves that while some human legal systems may be analogous to God’s justice nature, it remains an unfair juxtaposition as one side is God, who is clearly above our total understanding and intellectual limits. As such we need to remind ourselves that God Himself is not subject to His commands, which means His justice is not necessarily our idea of justice. As long as He is acting within His just nature, He is not contradicting Himself. It is impossible for any of us to call out God for possibly contradicting His own justice nature when we can’t possibly know all the details of how or why He metes out His justice. However, understanding ways His justice might be analogous with human-formed legal systems can prove helpful as we try to apprehend Christ being punished in our place. With that in mind let’s look closer at retributivism and consequentialism as they are the two most popular theories today.
If you can remember from above retributivism says that punishment is giving the offender what they deserve. Punishment is the just desert of the guilty, i.e. the guilty should be and needs to be punished.
Consequentialism says the reason you punish the offender is for the benefits, or consequences, that can ensue from punishment. Consequences like deterrence, bettering society by locking criminals away, reformation of the criminal, etc.
Consequentialism was the dominant view in the first half or better of the 20th century. Craig argues this was mainly in part to the psychology of the day that was so popular. (3) The criminal justice system realized toward the latter half of the 20th century that consequentialist models don’t really work. For one, criminals who commit crimes do not seem to be deterred by incarceration in committing more crimes once they are out. Criminals don’t seem to become better when they are locked up for long periods of time, so the reformation of the criminals while incarcerated didn’t seem to be successful either. Recent decades have seen retributivist theories becoming more the standard as to how justice is best understood; namely people are guilty and should be punished. Another key difference in the two theories are that retributive theories are retrospective (i.e. people are punished after the fact) whereas consequentialist theories are prospective, they aim to prevent future crimes from being committed by punishment.
So in the matter of Christ, a second and very popular and somewhat formidable objection to penal substitution (which deals greatly with God’s justice) is:
To punish Christ in our place would be unjust by God.
Craig puts this popular objection into a deductive argument:
God is perfectly just.
But if God is perfectly just He cannot punish an innocent person.
Therefore God cannot punish an innocent person.
But Christ was an innocent person.
Therefore God cannot punish Christ.
If God cannot punish Christ, then penal substitution is false.
At face value this argument seems like it may have some difficulty for a defender of biblical Christianity to overcome. But let’s look a little closer.
God is perfectly just.
This is an assumption we have to make when we make inferences as to God’s nature. If God is truly the greatest conceivable being, God would have to be perfectly just, even if our human minds can’t comprehend and possibly disagree as to what that means. This would be deemed an essential nature of God.
But if God is perfectly just, he cannot punish an innocent person.
A person looking to overcome this premise could adopt a consequentialist theory of justice here and this could lead to justifying the punishment of the innocent, namely as a deterrent value. One of the criticisms of a consequentialist view is that one can punish innocent people for the sake of a greater moral obligation perhaps, such as sacrificing an innocent person to save the entire human race from destruction! So for a person who is a Christian and adopts a consequentialist theory of justice, this objection doesn’t even get off the ground.
However it doesn’t seem biblically appropriate to adopt a consequentialist view. The Bible says in Romans 2:5 that the ungodly “…are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (NRSV) Now the Christian consequentialist could say that by putting the wicked in hell, they are isolated from those who have believed in Christ, but perhaps this is thin footing as there is no judgment after the day of wrath and no need for consequences (of a prospective nature). After all, God could just annihilate the damned, which biblically speaking we know He doesn’t. Craig doesn’t believe consequentialism is suited for God’s justice, at least not in a broad sense. Hebrews 10:29 really makes a strong case for a retributive view. Romans 1:32 is also a very strong case for retributivism where Paul says “…that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (NRSV)
A more important question for the person proposing this first premise would be who determines what is just and unjust for God? In a divine command theory of ethics moral duties are determined by God’s commands. There is no external law hanging over God of which He has to conform. God has no moral duties under this theory. He can act in any way He wants as long as it’s consistent with His own nature. He will have unique prerogatives we don’t have, such as giving and taking human life as He deems fit. If God is the sustainer God can do as God chooses. God will act in accordance with duty but God doesn’t act from duty, because God doesn’t have any moral duties to uphold, i.e. He has no moral obligations to anyone because there is nobody greater than He. So God can make what we would feel are exceptions, such as God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 (which of course, God doesn’t allow to take place). This sacrifice, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder; but instead becomes Abraham’s duty. This is how radical God’s prerogatives can be! This may not seem palatable to many out there, but who are we to question this? It is God who determines. If this theory of ethics is coherent then this whole objection has trouble.
God may command humans not to punish innocent people, but God is under no duty, for who would God’s duty be in response to, someone superior to God? Recall Moses’ attempt of offering himself as a substitutionary atonement (Ex 32: 30-34). God refuses. He also refused the aforementioned Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. But if it’s God’s will to take on human nature Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to take away sin, who is to forbid God? He is free to do this AS LONG AS it is consistent with His nature. This display of Christ would in fact exalt the nature of God’s love, holiness, and mercy, not call into question His definition of justice.
Thomas Aquinas felt that God didn’t have to punish Christ or inflict Christ, he could have just pardoned us to satisfy divine justice. Is this plausible? How would divine justice have been satisfied with a pardon? A person could easily argue Christ had to be punished the way He was for how else would we know the gravity of God’s hatred of sin and God’s tremendous love for us? How would we apprehend the depravity of our sin and accountability for it under a mere pardon? Would a simple pardon make God wishy-washy as to His justice nature? I think remembering that God’s nature is holy, loving, and good allows us to keep on track and in the bullseye. Many could argue God’s justice nature is retributive and He cannot act contrary to retributive justice, that is the guilty need to be punished, and therefore sweeping pardons won’t do the trick. We’ll get to more of that a little later as well. I think a valid, and very hard question for any human to answer is assuming God does exist, who can accuse God of being unjust?
Another response to premise 2 is many penal substitution theorists don’t believe God actually punished Christ (consequentialist theory of justice), but inflicted Christ with the suffering which was our just desert, and would have been our punishment if we had borne it ourselves. For this question let’s look at two aspects of retributive justice.
Positive retributivism: the guilty should be punished because they deserve it. This makes it justified.
Negative retributivism: the innocent should not be punished because they do not deserve it.
The essence of retributive justice lies in the positive aspect. The guilty deserve punishment. The Bible makes this very clear (Ex 34: 7). God is committed to this aspect.
Craig argues whether God is an unqualified negative retributivist? Even though God establishes the norm of positive retributivism, could He still reserve the prerogative to punish an innocent divine person? He prohibits punishing human persons who are innocent but it would seem He can reserve the right to punish an innocent divine person. This is an extraordinary exception and would again truly exalt his holiness, glory, love, and mercy. If this argument is coherent then it would render premise 2 false.
Another point an orthodox Christian could make in response to this argument is who is actually innocent? Now we may all not be murderers, thieves, rapists, etc., but are any of us truly innocent as far as our relationship with God, to our fellow human beings? Aren’t we all sinners as we understand in the Bible (Romans 3:23)? Think about this. What do you love most in your life, or what commits the bulk of your time to worship? Is the answer God? Let’s face it, we fall short.
But continuing, with a quick analysis it would appear there is evidence God possesses both aspects in a retributive justice model.
There is another argument that could lend this premise fallacious as well. This argument arises when we look at the difference between the prima facie evidence and ultima facie demands of retributive evidence. Prima facie being evidence “at first glance” whereas ultima facie evidence would be evidence gathered after we have all the examined all of the evidence. Those who defend retributivist justice differentiate between justice in general and justice in specific circumstances. We know of cases where the demands of retributivist justice in specific cases are outweighed by outstanding moral exceptions, and thusly are waived. So just because punishment in general is justified, doesn’t mean it is in specific cases. We know this very commonly in cases where there is a plea bargain offered for a criminal in order to punish others guilty of more heinous crimes. Clearly justice is not done to the person who accepts the plea bargain; in essence, they are being treated unjustly because they were not held liable for their crime. The demands of retributive justice are waived for the person accepting the plea bargain.
Feinberg and Gross specify there are times when a person (A) can be fully justified in violating person B’s rights when there is no third alternative. So B can be unjustly treated for what is ultimately a justifiable behavior. These are cases of overriding moral obligations. Now there are many examples we can dream up where this would seem true. One example would be a person trying to do a welfare check of a neighbor or family member and after unsuccessful results trying to establish communication with them, they break into their house through a window or door. They clearly violate established laws of trespass (i.e. they are guilty), but if their intentions were honorable and out of concern (i.e. some higher moral good), they would likely not be held liable for the trespass and any subsequent damage(s) incurred.
In the case of a just war, you are justified in the case of killing and lying to people, if in the light of prima facie evidence you wouldn’t be allowed to do, but in light of ultima facie your behavior of killing or lying could actually be obligatory in some respects because the moral outcome is greater. That being said, some people would not compromise the prima facie over the ultima facie evidence.
So in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, look at what He did. He was unjustly treated for the sake and salvation of mankind. Look at the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Same picture. The ultimate moral outcome outweighs any injustice inflicted on the sole individual. So while the Christian doesn’t necessarily have to hold to this viewpoint, this argument of waving the demands of retributive justice in lieu of larger, overriding moral outcomes does lend credibility as a defeater for premise 2.
So what about God’s forbearance with some sin? What do I mean by this? It is those occasions in life where we don’t see His immediate justice. Well this is really a moot point on when God decides to mete out his punishment. 2 Cor 5:10 reminds us “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ…” It will happen either way, even if we don’t like that it doesn’t happen as appropriate as we feel it should.
- Therefore God cannot punish an innocent person.
If any of our objections two the first two premises in the argument goes through, then this conclusion fails.
- But Christ was an innocent person.
At first glance this seems like an airtight premise. After all, orthodox Christians need to hold to a doctrine that Christ was in fact sinless as a divine/human person, otherwise the doctrine of the Trinity falls on its face. But yet he took on our sins on the cross. What does that mean? How could He take on our sins and still be sinless? In his second epistle to the Corinthians (5: 21) Paul writes “(F)or our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What Paul is saying here is that Christ was declared, in a forensic, or judicial sense, to be guilty and liable for our sins. This is what is known as the doctrine of imputation of sins. Francois Turretin is probably the foremost defender of this doctrine after Faustus Socinus posited a formidable argument of how God couldn’t have punished an innocent Christ (Socinus was a unitarian as well). In Turretin’s view Christ, while innocent in the flesh, was declared guilty in a judicial sense, analogous to how in our criminal justice systems we find guilt in innocent people as well. This legal aspect really makes sense in light of Col 2:13-14 where Paul says “…when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”(NRSV) In Christ’s case, our sins were imputed to him, not infused (see Lev 16 for better allusions to this). Christ Himself remains personally virtuous, but he was declared legally guilty by God.
This analysis, if true, would make this premise false if one holds to the doctrine of imputation of sin. The proponent of this premise may say imputation itself is unjust, which is an objection to what many know in the legal and insurance systems as vicarious liability. Vicarious liability is something that will be covered in greater detail in the “Atonement” post, but is worth a mention here. Under an idea of vicarious liability within a business system, a person or corporation can be deemed liable for a crime committed by someone other than themselves, in many cases an employee. Especially in crimes where there are monetary damages, most individuals cannot pay such grand amounts, but a corporation may have the ability to pay, so the corporation, while innocent of the crime, is held liable for the punishment. So under what conditions would vicarious liability be unjust? Perhaps only in the case when vicarious liability is imputed in a non-voluntary way. But what if you have an employer who is compassionate for their employee and wants to pay the penalty for his employee? How could that be said to be unjust? It is voluntary as we hold it was in Christ’s example as well. And in the case of humanity’s sins, what person other than a divine person could pay the penalty for all those sins? Some who understand vicarious liability would say the only person plausible who could make such a payment would be some sort of a divine person; in our example Christ.
- Therefore God cannot punish Christ.
Similar to the conclusion in 3, there seem to be overriding defeaters in the previous premises that would lend this conclusion fallacious. God could punish Christ in a number of ways: 1) because God acting in accordance with His nature could demand it, 2) the overriding moral considerations gained by Christ taking our punishment for sin far outweighs His innocence and unjust treatment (hence the demands of retributive justice in a general sense are waived), 3) Christ, as understood by a doctrine of imputation of sins, was held judicially liable for our sins even though He was innocent in the flesh, 4) We understand, analogous to our criminal justice system, that people and corporations are often held liable for the crimes of employees, so Christ could be punished via a form of vicarious liability.
- If God cannot punish Christ, then penal substitution is false.
It would seem that we have discussed strong defeaters to the idea that God cannot punish Christ, and that we have evidence in our own criminal justice system of penal substitution so this conclusion seems rather weak if our defeaters are strong enough in the previous premises to overcome the arguments. And as was discussed before, there are many Christians who hold to a penal substitution theory where God afflicted Christ but did not punish Him, so this conclusion amounts to no obstacle for the Christian who holds such a view.
What I have tried to do here is to come up with a somewhat cogent idea that justice, if God exists, has to be rooted in His nature. The next hurdle was to try and develop an idea of what kind of justice nature God would have. For this portion we looked at biblical passages that tend to strongly support God as possessing a dominant retributive justice nature, holding that people who are guilty of sin need to be punished for that sin, and that strong evidence of this retributive nature is that it is eschatological, that is to say, God at the last day will judge human deeds.
We then looked at what some necessary conditions of punishment might look like, and then tackled a deductive argument framed by philosopher William Lane Craig on God’s justice, Christ’s innocence, and penal substitution. We then went through the premises of the argument and offered seemingly strong defeaters for these premises which we know from human experience, legal justice systems, and what we can glean from the biblical evidence of God’s nature.
I mentioned a forthcoming “Atonement” post and I do hope I can spend a fair amount of time unpacking the idea of penal substitution regarding what Christ did on the cross and its effect on humanity. This understanding is insuperably important for the person who has the head knowledge of the proof of Christ, yet doesn’t fully understand the implications of why He had to die. This justice post is a big part to laying some of the groundwork for that future undertaking.
I pray this effort on my part to unpack this post about God’s justice, why it’s important, what sort of a justice nature God may possess, how it has influenced us, and what it means in relation to Jesus, has been helpful to you. This post has been difficult in many ways to articulate, and I hope I haven’t disappointed you. My prayer is that you have a better understanding of justice, specifically God’s justice as associated with His nature. I hope you have enough wit to discern how an objective view of justice couldn’t possibly be an evolutionary process, and that divine justice was satisfied when Christ took the punishment for our sins on the cross. May the Lord continue to bless you and keep your eyes open on your journey for truth.
1) Alec Walen. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-retributive/
2) Joel Feinberg. “The Expressivist Function of Punishment”. The Monist 49 (Pages 397-423, 1965).
3) William Lane Craig. SS07 Doctrine of Christ, Part 18-21. (Defenders 3 podcast, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-doctrine-of-christ/P10 2017).